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4.7 Million Mail Ballots to Begin Reaching Post Offices Thursday

September 23rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Starting Thursday, mail ballots will begin going out to the 4.7 million Floridians who have already requested them.

It already dwarfs the 3.3 million requested in 2016 and supervisors have told us they’re getting more requests each day.

At Election Supervisors’ offices across the state mail ballots were being prepped Wednesday.

The unprecedented 4.7 million ballots that have been requested so far may seem like a daunting task, but President of the Association representing supervisors of elections Craig Latimer told us the state is prepared.

“Because we’ve been doing vote by mail for almost 20 years, I think that Florida is really in a great position to end up being the shining star on election night,” said Latimer.

Vice President of the association Mark Earley agreed.

“Well this is Florida. Elections are close. So I’m never going to say you should know the winner on Election Day, but we will certainly have the vast majority of our ballots counted by the end of the night on election night,” said Earley.

Supervisors also said with more people opting to vote by mail, in person voting should run smoother.

With fewer people at the polls precautions for sanitation and social distancing are expected to be less burdensome.

Earley did notice one issue in the Primary Election.

Some voters attempted to drop off their mail ballots in person, without the envelope.

“You can’t. It’s got to be in the envelope because otherwise there’s no way for us to know whose ballot that was,” said Earley.

Requesting and returning your ballot early is key.

While you can request a mail ballot as late as ten days before the election, supervisors and the post office recommend mailing it back at least a week before the election.

“If you don’t want to trust the mail, you can go to any early vote site during early voting and there will be a drop box there,” said Latimer.

Ballots have already begun flowing in.

More than 2,100 have been received from overseas voters according to the latest numbers published by the state.

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Voting Rights Activist Pardon Put on Hold

September 23rd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The man who wrote and passed the constitutional amendment giving felons the right to vote asked the Governor and Clemency Board for a full pardon from a 18 -year-old cocaine conviction Wednesday, but he will have to wait a little longer.

Desmond Meade was in his early 30’s when he was convicted of possessing cocaine.

Since then he has graduated law school and lead the successful effort to restore nonviolent felons’ voting rights.

On Wednesday he was before the Clemency Board asking for a full pardon.

“The man who is here right now in front of you all is not that same man,” said Meade.

Immediately there were questions.

“Was the first criminal offense you were charged and convicted of was that a court Marshall in 1990?” Asked Governor Ron DeSantis.

“Yes sir. On drugs and trying to get money to satisfy a drug habit,” responded Meade.

Then CFO Jimmy Patronis wanted to know about domestic violence.

There were no details in the file.

“I’d like to hear something from a brother if that’s possible,” said Patronis.

But Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried urged a yes vote

“The fact you got an amendment written into our constitution has shown that you are somebody who is an exemplary citizen,” said Fried.

But it wasn’t to be, yet.

“I think that this military court marshal, I’d like to get a little more information on that,” said DeSantis.

Despite today’s road block, Meade said he’s not going to leave the state and he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing.

Meade called the delay a system failure, not retribution for his voting work.

“Its very arbitrary. You can have someone who hasn’t done half of the things that I’ve done since turning my life around, that can get it, and then someone like me would appear and you would think its a no brainer,” said Meade.

Meade was able to register to vote after passing Amendment 4, but he wants to use his law degree and can’t until the state wipes the slate clean.

In addition to not being able to practice law, Desmond Meade also can’t serve on a jury or run for public office until his rights are restored.

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CFO Questions Bloomberg Fines and Fees Donations

September 23rd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

With voting registration closing in two weeks, CFO Jimmy Patronis is questioning the millions flowing into Florida to help felons pay their fines and fees.

At least $20 million has been raised, much of it by billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Patronis and others are concerned that the money will be used to help likely Democratic voters.

“We’re going to go ahead and submit a formal inquiry and get an opinion from the elections commission to ensure that these dollars, if they are coming in, I just don’t look like some type of way of buying votes,” said Patronis.

The Florida Elections Commission usually only acts after the fact and only on a complaint from someone with firsthand knowledge of a violation.

On Wednesday afternoon, Patronis asked the commission to formally investigate whether former New York Mayor, and Presidential Candidate, Michael Bloomberg is trying to illegally influence the outcome of Florida’s election.

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Herd Immunity Protest Brings Goats to the Governor’s Mansion

September 23rd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

For months, Attorney Daniel Uhlfelder has been touring the state dressed as the Grim reaper to oppose what he considers the unsafe reopening of schools and businesses.

Wednesday, he was at the Governor’s Mansion with three baby goats (kid) to continue the protest, this time suggesting the concept of herd immunity isn’t science.

“There are studies that show that people can get re-infected. So, but the percentage, the number of people you would have to get reinfected to reach herd immunity is at least seventy percent. And that would be millions of people. In Florida we have the largest population individuals who are susceptible, and it is especially devastating,” said Uhlfelder.

A handful of opponents carrying Trump Signs protested nearby.

They oppose Uhlfelder efforts to shut down the economy.

“Right now we’re here to support business owners who are making a living and need to continue making a living and not give into the fear of the liberal left,” said Leon County GOP Chair Evan Power.

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Activists Pushback on Protest Measures

September 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

A coalition of Black Lives Matter and other activists pushed back against at the Governor Ron DeSantis’ proposal to increase penalties for violent protestors Tuesday.

The Governor’s efforts to curb violent protests with longer jail time, temporarily denying bail and felony charges for obstructing traffic during un-permitted protests brought disdain from protestors from across the state.

“No one leader of any movement that has organized protests following the rash of murders and public lynchings of black and brown people has advocated for looting and violence,” said Bacardi Jackson with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

When we told the Governor about the pushback he chuckled.

“Yea, right. Let me just say, do you think it’s okay to throw a brick at a police officer? Do you think its okay to burn down buildings?” Said DeSantis.

Then he drew this distinction.

“Protest all you want. Knock your socks off, but when it goes into violence, you know, that’s when there has to be accountability,” said DeSantis.

The protestors argue the idea of granting drivers immunity from arrest for fleeing a mob would encourage white supremacists.

Sarasota activist Ruth Beltran with the Party for Socialism and Liberation urged people not to come to Florida.

“Travelers may also encounter unjust detention, deportation, racial profiling and even death. It is not safe to travel to the state of Florida,” said Beltran.

Normally, a Governor’s proposal would get taken up in a March legislative session, but DeSantis is asking lawmakers to take it up in a one day organizational session in November.

The measure would also deny any local governments state funds if they scale back on police protection.

“You pay taxes to have this kind of protection,” said DeSantis.

The Governor did note the state has been spared from extreme violence, but said the tough measures will make sure Florida protests don’t take a violent turn.

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Florida’s First Lady Takes on Pandemic Related Mental Health Challenges

September 22nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s child abuse hotlines saw a sharp drop off in calls while schools were closed due to the pandemic, but mental health calls increased.

Florida’s First Lady and mental health experts from around the state are looking at ways to address the mental health problem, especially in areas with poor access to services.

While schools were closed 20,000 fewer calls came into Florida’s child abuse hotline, but Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis said that’s not because fewer children were suffering.

“Those are 20,000 less lives that are potential victims of child abuse that do not have the opportunity to be able to seek help,” said DeSantis.

And while fewer were able to report abuse, more reported mental health issues.

One crisis center alone reported a 36 percent increase in suicide related calls among 13 to 18 year olds.

“What do kids need? They need predictability, they need stability, they need transparency, and during COVID-19 they’ve had none of that,” said Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

Since school started, more cases of abuse are being reported.

Calls are up 27 percent.

But access to mental health services for children, especially in rural districts is limited.

“And so if we don’t figure out creative ways of being able to provide that level of service, we know depths of despair will increase,” said Reynolds.

To help expand access, Florida’s First Lady announced $2 million in CARES Act funding will go to bolster telehealth services in 18 rural school districts.

“It really broadens the access and lets folks get that immediate care that they need,” said Melanie Brown-Woofter, President of the Florida Behavioral Health Association.

The Legislature included $100 million for school mental health in this year’s budget.

Mental Health experts we spoke with told us similar or even increased funding may be necessary in the coming year to respond to the longterm impacts of the pandemic.

As of July, the CDC found 40 percent of adults were struggling with mental health or substance abuse.

If you are struggling, please call the suicide hotline at 800-273-8255 or dial 211 to be connected with a local mental health care provider.

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Floridian May Be Court Pick

September 21st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida-born Barbara Lagoa is one of four or five women President Donald Trump is considering for the US Supreme Court.

She is the first Cuban American woman to serve on the Florida Supreme Court, and she has served as a judge at the appellate level since 2006.

Flags are at half staff at the Florida Supreme Court where one of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s possible successors once served.

In 2006, then-Governor Jeb Bush tapped Barbara Lagoa to serve on the Third District Court of Appeal.

Raquel Rodriguez was Bush’s top lawyer at the time.

“The fact that her parents fled communism and worked for freedom in the United States is something that became a part of her. An indelible part of her character and her belief in Democracy and the rule of law,” said Rodriguez.

Lagoa spent a dozen years on the appeals court before being tapped by Governor Ron Desantis for the state’s highest court in January 2019.

“It is for the legislature and not the courts to make the law,” said Lagoa at the announcement of her appointment.

Nine months later, President Trump nominated Lagoa for an opening on the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

She was confirmed by the US Senate on an 80 to 15 vote.

“She is 1,000 percent up to the task. She is one of those rare individuals that is a talent that you only see on occasion. And her work ethic is beyond anybody’s work ethic,” said Rodriguez.

Based on our research, if nominated, Barbara Lagoa would be the only Florida-born person ever nominated for the nation’s highest court.

Federal Judge G Harold Carswell of Tallahassee was nominated by Richard Nixon for the high court, but Carswell was born in Georgia, not Florida.

He was not confirmed by the Senate.

The President has said he will make his decision on Friday or Saturday, but not before the funeral of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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FSU Shows Signs of Improving COVID Rates

September 21st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Officials at Florida State University say COVID-19 numbers are starting to improve.

So far the university has identified 1,428 cases since reopening for the fall semester, but in the latest report positivity rates and case numbers appear to be trending downward.

Herds of students walking Florida State University’s campus have been reduced to solitary pedestrians dawning face masks.

FSU Vice President of Student Affairs Amy Hecht told us it’s a sign students are taking the virus seriously.

“There are so many of our students that are abiding by our guidelines, want to be here, want to keep the community safe,” said Hecht.

And Hecht said the numbers suggest the same.

Following a week of more than 400 new cases and a positivity rate of 12.9 percent, the university’s newly released report shows 178 new cases and a positivity rate of 6.7 percent.

“Although we’re not out of the woods, I do think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Hecht.

Among those who tested positive was FSU Head Football Coach Mike Norvell.

“I am not aware of how I came into contact with it,” said Norvell in a Monday press conference.

The university announced it plans to revisit its policies for home football games after attendees were seen crowding together in the stands and not wearing face masks.

The changes are expected to be announced sometime this week.

But Hecht said most of the students who are testing positive appear to be contracting the virus off campus.

“Little to no transmission in our classes or in our facilities, our fitness center,” said Hecht.

In an effort to curb transmission, the university announced students who test positive and break quarantine will face possible suspension.

“So that students understand the severity of violating isolation and knowingly exposing others to COVID,” said Hecht.

The university is asking for students help holding bad actors accountable.

Students can report concerning behavior on the university’s website.

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Florida’s First Lady Raises Alarm for Children’s Mental Health

September 21st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

First Lady Casey DeSantis held a mental health round table at the Governors’ mansion Monday afternoon.

She said one Florida hotline reported a 36 percent increase in calls from kids 13 to 18 who reported issues with the pandemic or their mental state, with 138 calls in one week alone.

She also quoted CDC data released in July showing four in ten adults reported mental health concerns.

“A staggering 25 percent of 18 to 24 year olds seriously had considered suicide in the past 30 days, and that was in July. If you extrapolate that number, what does that mean in terms of Florida and that demographic of 18-24 year olds? That’s 400,000 plus children in the state of Florida that could potentially be thinking along those lines,” said DeSantis.

The first lady said reopening school classrooms would help teens and young adults get help and perhaps lower the number of those with unmet mental health needs.

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Teachers Union Dubs Return to Classrooms ‘Chaos’

September 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The state’s largest teachers union described Florida schools as being in a state of chaos due to what it characterizes as a poorly planned and forced return to classroom learning.

In a virtual press conference Friday, The Florida Education Association said teachers are retiring, students aren’t showing up and educators are being forced to provide in person and virtual learning simultaneously.

FEA President Andrew Spar argued all of those factors are resulting in schools failing to meeting their obligation to provide a high quality education.

“The state’s educators want to provide our students with the highest quality education they deserve. However, with looming cuts, unsustainable teaching methods and forced increases in retirement, resignations and leaves of absences our students are without certified teachers, which is shortchanging our children and Florida’s future,” said Spar.

The union is asking the state to extend the flexible funding measure included in the Department of Educations reopening order until the end of the school year.

It also is asking the state to share school case data, which so far has only been made available by districts themselves.

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Attack Ads Target Democratic Party PPP Loan

September 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Democratic candidates in the state are now facing attack ads from their Republican opponents, accusing their campaigns of receiving funds from a pandemic assistance loan meant for small businesses.

The loan was secured by the Florida Democratic Party earlier this year, but the candidates facing the attacks call them misleading and untrue.

You may have received a mailer or even seen a TV spot, accusing a local candidate of receiving funds from a $780,000 PPP loan secured by the Democratic Party in May.

One television spot is targeting Democratic State Senate candidate Loranne Ausley.

“They took those dollars, funneled them to a committee and then gave them to their candidates,” said Evan Power, Chair of the Republican Party of Leon County.

Ausley is one of three candidates targeted.

She called the ads a distraction.

“People are really hurting and they want us to talk about how we’re going to solve those problems,” said Ausley.

A public financial report released in August shows the Democratic Party of Florida paid back the initial loan, with interest.

“All of the candidates that are being brought into this have condemned the party for taking the funds and with everyone we demanded that return the money. The money has been returned,” said Ausley.

All of the targeted candidates deny any of the money reached their campaign accounts, but Republicans argue there’s no way to prove it one way or the other.

“They benefited from taking that million dollars of taxpayer money that was meant to save jobs and distributed it out and took a benefit at the time that they sent it out,” said Power.

According to the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida’s financial reports, the Party received more than $815,000 in CARES Act loans in total.

The payment it made in August still leaves almost $34,000 that has not been paid back, but Mark Herron, an attorney representing the Party told us the outstanding balance is an error.

“I’ve been informed that an amendment has been filed to correct the error and we anticipate it will post later today,” said Herron in an e-mail Thursday afternoon.

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Amendment Four Would Require ‘Do Over’ Votes

September 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

In the last three decades, voters have saved themselves billions in property taxes, limited how long politicians can stay in office and improved overall health through constitutional amendments, but a yes on Amendment four on November’s ballot could be the end of citizen amendments.

In 1992, voters approved Save Our Homes.

It caps tax increases at 3 percent on homesteads and saves homeowners about $5 billion every year.

“Voters have taken matters into their own hands when the politicians have decided that it’s an issue they don’t want to take on, or they oppose,” said political strategist John Sowinski.

Voters have also approved approved citizen initiatives that include term limits, stopping workplace smoking, limiting class sizes, drawing legislative districts fairly, conserving water and land, medical marijuana and giving nonviolent felons the right to vote again.

But any future amendments could be be stifled by Amendment four on this November’s ballot.

It requires voters to approve amendments twice, two years apart.

“It’s pure objective is to eliminate the process. To make it totally impractical and implausible for citizen groups to gather signatures to place an issue on the ballot,” said Sowinski.

More than $9 million has already gone into getting Amendment four on the ballot, but who gave it has been a secret, with one political committee giving to another.

“We don’t know a lot about them. And frankly, they need to be transparent as to exactly who they are,” said League of Women Voters of Florida President Patricia Brigham.

On Thursday, Florida TaxWatch recommended a yes vote.

“So having it go before the voters twice is saying, are your sure? And if you are, then we’ll actually amend our organic law,” said Calabro.

Nevada is the only state that requires a do over, but only for citizen initiatives.

Florida’s would apply to all amendments.

The contact information for the group giving and receiving money for Amendment Four lists the same Ft. Lauderdale law firm.

It did not return our call.

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New Leadership at Unemployment Agency

September 16th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The agency responsible for unemployment payments has a new leader this week and he will face big challenges in the coming months.

The unemployment claims keep coming.

More than 95,000 so far in September as of Monday.

The once $4 billion trust fund for making payments has burned through three-fourths of its cash.

Now the agency is in new hands, with Former State Representative Dane Eagle taking the reigns at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

“The CONNECT system, the reemployment system did not meet the demand of the people. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, however, we need to fix that moving forward. No question about it. That’s what I am here to do. I’m going to surround myself with great people. There are good staff people working on that already,” said Eagle.

More than 2.1 million eligible claims have already been processed, but more than 152,000 remain unpaid.

“That’s our number one priority right now. Is figuring out how do we get them paid, get them moved forward, and move on. That is our number one priority. Getting that backlog done,” said Eagle.

The new director is just three days on the job.

He told us he’s still getting up to speed on replenishing the trust fund.

It’s usually done by assessing payments against companies that had layoffs, but Florida TaxWatch is recommending against that method.

“We don’t want to see the businesses that were most hurt by the pandemic and are going to have the toughest time recovering, having to pay a higher tax,” said Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch Vice President.

As a former state legislator, the new director has already surveyed all of his colleagues, asking them what they were hearing from constituents.

Their response: Fix the system. Get people paid, and from some, increase benefits.

The agency is still being sued by many unemployed who couldn’t collect.

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Pediatric Cases and Hospitalizations See 20 Percent Spike Since Return to Classrooms

September 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

According to state data more than 12,000 Florida children 17 and under have been infected with COVID-19 since schools first began opening their doors.

Groups representing both teachers and parents are demanding more transparency.

The pediatric cases since August 10th represent a 20 percent increase.

Pediatric hospitalizations also jumped almost 20 percent over the same period.

The Dr. Danielle Thomas with the Florida PTA said it’s difficult to draw any hard conclusions from the numbers.

“In some of those cases the district has said that it’s not attributed to students being back at school,” said Thomas.

FEA President Andrew Spar said the problem is that it’s impossible to tell how many are directly related to school reopening.

“We need transparency, we need truth, we need leadership and that’s missing right now,” said Spar.

A new ad from FEA takes aim at the state for not publicizing school case data.

The Department of Health had promised to do so this week, but so far it has not.

“What is the Governor hiding that he will not release this information? And when he releases this information, the question I think we all should be asking is can we trust it,” said Spar.

We identified at least 33 school districts that are publishing local data on their websites.

One additional district was publishing its case data until the state told it to stop.

“Parents have the right to know, people who work in our schools have the right to know and we need this data,” said Spar.

All but nine Florida counties have a pediatric positivity rate above 10 percent.

The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum 5 percent positivity rate before reopening classrooms.

Since the start of the pandemic, nine Florida K-12 aged children have died from COVID-19.

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DBPR Promising Stricter Enforcement for Bars

September 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Happy hour has taken on a whole new meaning for Florida Bar and brewery owners.

Tuesday was the second day they have been allowed to reopen and in an exclusive interview, the state’s top regulator promised a different approach to enforcement this time around.

During the three weeks bars were allowed open in June, the state relied on complaints it received, then sent agents to investigate for violations.

But Halsey Beshears, Secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation told us this time, things will be different.

“So we are going to police this thing very hard, differently this time, up front,” said Beshears.

Agents will be on the streets nightly, proactively looking for violations.

“We’ve moved to a four to 12 pm shift. We’re going to be out policing being active on that,” said Beshears.

Those who ignore the 50 percent inside occupancy rule could quickly be out of business.

“You know, some bar owners are gonna open up regardless. They think they’re gonna pack it in. And we’re gonna continue to police those who do not want to operate within the emergency order and we’re going to take their license,” said Beshears.

Brewer Byron Burroughs likes the new approach.

“Because, invariably, you’re going to have bad operators out there that aren’t following the rules, and that’s bad for everybody that has been and is following the rules,” said Burroughs, who owns Proof Brewery in the state’s capital city.

To help limit contact, customers at Burrough’s bar will scan a code attached to every table.

That will get them a menu and help them avoid touching something that someone else may have handled.

The windows of Proof Brewery are also filled with health information, a warning about social distancing, and a waiver telling customers, by entering they assume the risk of getting the virus.

“It’s basically saying, yes, ,we’re going to do everything we can do to protect you, but there is still an element of risk,” said Burroughs.

A total of nine licenses were suspended during the three weeks bars were open in June.

The top regulator wouldn’t speculate if stronger enforcement this time will result in more suspensions.

Beshears also noted that the big test will be how well bars and breweries handle any crowds this weekend, which will be the first weekend bars will have been open in almost three months.

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